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Supporting island farmers makes for rewarding, educational experience
Have you ever wondered if there’s a young Vashon farmer who would love to transform your field into a productive farm? What that would take in terms of infrastructure, water, housing and land? What kind of difference that would make in your life, theirs and the life of our community?
Doug Dolstad and I have asked ourselves those questions, too. We took the leap from dreaming to doing, and we hope our experience might interest owners and young farmers and lead them to pursue creative farming partnerships that work for everyone.
Since 2013, we’ve been leasing 8 acres of land from Doug’s family. The land under our stewardship belonged to his ancestors and dates back to the 1880s. By 1990, nothing remained but the 1890 farm house, some outbuildings, a spring-fed reservoir, an old apple orchard, scattered nut trees, forests and two fenced fields of native grasses that are still being hayed by Willie Mann and George Nelson.
It became our mission to renew the farm and bring it back as a productive small farm that contributes to the island’s agricultural vitality. Around the same time, islander Liam Rockwell came our way.
Liam had been looking for a place to start farming for a living since interning at Hogsback Farm in 2012. He said he saw the potential of the Dolstad’s property after Doug offered him a trailer as an option for housing in exchange for working on the land.
“I saw I could put my dreams into reality,” Liam said.
The project and relationship between Liam and us grew organically. We remember the first cold farm meetings at the picnic table in the hay field when we shared our dreams and began to explore how this might work. Besides providing housing and land, we committed to a no-interest loan that we calculated was needed to buy the equipment and infrastructure that would get him off to a healthy start.
Liam spent the winter methodically approaching the research phase of the project, reading up on regional farming methods and pouring over equipment lists and seed catalogs. He researched rototillers and commercial greenhouses, seed companies and market demand, making and sharing computer lists and charts with us. Gradually, all the essential pieces of Cedar Spring Farm came together.
As spring approached, Liam rolled up his sleeves and set to muscle work: He deer-fenced the perimeter, rototilled and, with the help of family and friends, erected a greenhouse that became a home to his future market garden.
Digging rows and rows of growing beds, he laid hundreds of feet of irrigation tape and was working a farmer’s day of dawn to dusk. By July, he had his hands full with carrots and cabbages, snap peas and spinach and was harvesting, cleaning and selling 28 vegetable varieties at VIGA’s Farmers Market.
Among the many successes, there were also challenges. During 2015’s long, dry summer, water became a critical issue. Liam’s garden needed more flow than we were able to provide. We activated a 1,500-gallon water tank, where water from our well could accumulate during the night and be used by day. What a relief it worked.
One hard-learned lesson was when Liam found his lucrative snap pea crop decimated by deer that had filed in through a hole in the fence. We also had moments of hilarity as we all ran around the garden in the evening dusk, waving our arms and yelling at the same deer who days later had found their way through an open gate.
Our weekly farm meetings became as essential to the success of the farm as weeding and watering. Liam often shared the gratitude he felt for those weekly connections, saying they gave him a sense of support and companionship in what was largely a one-man operation. Those regular check-ins not only helped grow the farm, but they helped to grow the farmer and our partnership.
At the close of the first growing season, we sat down at the picnic table in what is now Liam’s market garden and shared yet another delicious farm dinner. It was time for us to harvest what we had learned from our first season of partnership.
Liam had learned much about the land he was farming, its particular needs and capacities. He also learned about his own needs and capacities as a farmer. He learned gates must be closed, fences checked, cover crops planted and that mistakes and celebrations can be shared and used as compost for learning and growing.
Doug and I learned the value of sharing land and how to meaningfully support an island farmer. We also had the pleasure of witnessing a young farmer realize his dreams, gain confidence and discover the deeper meaning in the work of farming and feeding his community.
— Barbara Larson is an islander and owner of Cedar Spring Farm along with Doug Dolstad.
This column is part of a series by VIGA members. VIGA represents local farmers and those who eat and use their products.